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Published: Friday, 5/25/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

St. John's students, staff to face drug tests

Random screenings to begin this fall at the prep school

BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER

St. John's Jesuit High School & Academy plans this fall to introduce random drug tests for all students and staff, making it one of the first schools in Ohio to have such a policy.

All students and staff members could be asked to provide a hair sample for testing, and submission to the tests will be a condition of enrollment, the Rev. Joaquin Martinez, school president, said Thursday. School administrators have discussed a possible drug testing policy for about two years. It does not include testing for alcohol.

"The whole idea of the program is to follow the mission of our school," high school Principal Brad Bonham said. "St. John's is much more than just academics ... it's about making good life decisions, about being a good human being."

A first positive test would not result in discipline. Instead, the school plans to refer those who test positive for treatment or counseling. If students or staff ignore those recommendations or test positive again, they would then face consequences.

Those consequences would vary, said St. John's spokesman Zach Silka, based on such things as the student's reaction to treatment and the severity of the situation. The school does not plan to get law enforcement involved, he said.

"These are sensitive issues, so we are handling it on a case-by-case basis, but there would be some sort of punishment," Mr. Silka said. "The policy is not to punish the kids or ruin their lives; it's to get them help."

Mr. Silka said punishment could range from in-school or out-of-school suspension to expulsion.

Administrators conducted numerous focus groups with parents, staff, and students about a possible policy.

At the suggestion of students, they decided to make all at St. John's eligible to be tested. It was the students who felt it was more fair that all should be tested -- not just groups such as athletic teams.

Not all students would necessarily be tested in one year, school officials said, but a high percentage would be so students would take the issue seriously.

Father Martinez said he has volunteered to be the first person tested. The policy could not only help school officials and parents intervene in drug abuse early, administrators said, but it also could help students explain to peers why they don't want to use drugs.

"This gives students an out," Assistant Principal Spencer Root said. "It gives them an excuse to say no to the peer pressures they experience."

School leaders debated a drug policy for so long because of, in part, concerns that students and staff would consider it an invasion of privacy. Father Martinez said they ultimately decided safety trumped those concerns.

"When you are talking about some of these privacy issues, I think the safety issues and the making-good-choices issues are more important," he said.

St. John's said it chose hair tests over urine tests because they tend to be more accurate and cover a longer time frame, though they are more expensive at about $40 a test. Administrators also said that some students don't fear urine tests, believing they can beat them.

While St. John's might be unique in requiring testing of all students and staff, it certainly isn't the only school in the state that conducts drug tests, in both private and public schools. Most that do seem to focus on athletes, according to the Ohio School Boards Association's chief legal counsel, Hollie Reedy.

Public schools face restrictions on drug testing that private schools don't, because of their legal charge to offer education to all students.

"Random testing of the entire student body without some sort of documented need for that, I don't think works in a public school district," Ms. Reedy said.

Perrysburg Schools began mandatory preseason drug testing for all student athletes at the high school three years ago. Student drivers at the high school, as well as athletes at both the high school and junior high, also are subject to random testing during the athletic season.

Superintendent Tom Hosler said the policy seems to be working.

"We've been very happy with it," he said. "Everyone talks about the test, but for us it was a shift in how we interact with students about drugs and alcohol. It's as much a counseling program as it is a testing program."

Students who self-report or agree to undergo counseling face less serious consequences. Overall, the goal is not to be punitive.

"We're not trying to catch kids. We're trying to prevent kids from using drugs and alcohol," Mr. Hosler said. "The goal is to use this as a deterrent, to give that student one more reason to say no."

Mr. Hosler said all employees are drug-tested when they are hired. Bus drivers are subject to random drug testing throughout the school year, and other staff members may be randomly tested if they are suspected of substance abuse.

Toledo Public Schools doesn't test any students, spokesman Patty Mazur said. A drug test is required before employment in the district, and an employee suspected of being under the influence can be tested. Bus drivers are randomly tested.

Sally Oberski, spokesman for the Toledo Catholic Diocese, said she wasn't aware of any other school in the diocese that tests students.

Sue Kenney, a spokesman for St. Francis de Sales High School, which is the other all-male Catholic school in Toledo, could not be reached for comment. There has been no recent increase in drug-related incidents involving St. John's students or staff, Mr. Root said. The policy is, instead, a proactive move, school leaders said.

"What we want to do is make this place safer than it already is," Father Martinez said.

Staff writer Jennifer Feehan contributed to this report.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086.



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